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The arts of Ancient Ife and the royal arts of the Yoruba peoples Essay

Essay Topic:

Discuss the significance of the form and meanings of the arts of Ancient Ife and the royal arts of the Yoruba peoples. Discuss the different types of historic interactions and power relationships with Europeans as expressed in Afro-Portuguese ivories and the royal arts of the Benin Kingdom.

In the exhibition titled Dynasty and Divinity: Ife Art in Ancient Nigeria, we learn how Ife art tried to juxtapose misery and glory, deformity and beauty, master and slave, disease and health. Made of copper alloys and terra cottas, the royal arts of the Yoruba people were informed by the myth of Obatala, whose legend is the art of deformity or sin or illness. Royal personages were commonly immortalized through art. Ooni, the ruler of Ife, wore elaborate textiles in the fourteenth century. The buffalo horn filled with medicines is a symbol of his authority. The staff on his hand also signifies authority. He also wears a beaded collar which usually holds a pair of bows like those representing the badge of office of the king.

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Introducing the exhibition, author Enid Schildkrout documents the notion of the deity in Yoruba culture. Often representing otherworldly forces, they also include the whole of ancestry. The deified forbears are not thought to be dead, but as having descended into the earth and hence becoming part of nature. The Yoruba thus place nature as the starting and endpoint of their lives. It is also a way of linking their humanity with divinity. There is also a lack of definite distinction between politics and religion, as often they are both one and the same. Likewise, no distinctions are made between that which is secular and that which is sacred, for in the ancient world of the Yoruba, superstition, and not scientific inquiry, was the only means of understanding the world. It is for this fluidity of their culture that the art is so contradictory. We see in the copper-alloy and terra cotta figures and symbols, the intermixing of beauty, power, infirmity and death, all given equal expression.

One of the features of Yoruba art, as illustrated in the exhibition, is striations of various types seen on human faces and bodies. These could either represent body art worn by men and women of ancient Ife. It is also interpreted to be scar marks of tribesmen acquired during their hunting expeditions or combat with rival tribes. But the more plausible explanation is that from the angle of tradition. Even as recent as early twentieth century, indigenous Nigerian populations were documented to perform scarification and painting of their faces in certain ritual contexts. Perhaps this continuing tradition is an indication of the meaning of the striations. However, it is difficult to pinpoint what exactly they represented in the surviving art. Some archaeologists have even proposed that the striations may actually be beaded veils that Yoruba rulers wore to conceal their faces.

Several sacred sites were unearthed in recent excavations in North Western Africa. These new discoveries throw light on the religious practices and beliefs of the Yorubas. At sacred groves and shrines, prayers are said and offerings are made. They spring from the fundamental belief that deities look after the tribe and its wellbeing. Various food items, kola nuts, metal coins are commonly offered. Necklaces, bracelets and anklets of beads are also visible in many fragments of Ife terra-cotta figures. They are also seen on the remaining full-figure copper-alloy sculptures. What is more gruesome is evidence of animal and human sacrifice having once been practiced by the Yorubas. What is interesting is the presence of terra-cotta and stone art works being found in religious sites. These figures include those of rams, goats, dogs and also humans. Some of the famous religious sites in Ife include the Obalulon Shrine, the Obatala Shrine, and the Oduduwa Shrine. Ife art has also thrown light on the fact that the Obalata and the Oduduwa were longstanding rivals in Ife and they tried to seizure power from one another.

Kathy Curnow’s article throws light on trade exchanges between Ife and European kingdoms between the fifteenth and the twentieth century. A trans-Saharan trade route had been established which exported to Europe items such as salt, gold, copper, tin, ivory, kola nuts, beads, textiles, and other commodities. Sadly, even captured and subjugated peoples were traded off as slaves to Europe. By the end of the fifteenth century, European kingdoms had begun establishing forts along the Atlantic Coast. In return for imports from Africa, Europe bartered its guns, cloths, precious gems, etc. By the end of the fifteenth century Ife was already losing its place as the dominant mercantile center in West Africa. It is being replaced by the rising kingdom of Benin. In some ways the rulers of Benin continued the artistic traditions of Ife through the shared worship of Oranmiyan – the mythological hero and the Grandson of Oduduwa.

The European trade interaction with Africa was much more than a purely commercial enterprise. Despite vast cultural differences between the two peoples, there was an exchange of ideas and styles in the realm of art. In the royal arts of Benin we witness how Europeans were conceptualized as ‘the other’. In a similar vein, trade with Europe was represented more as economic and political control, a harbinger to the shape of imperialist conquest in the following centuries. A similar artistic response is evident in European art about Africa and its peoples. These artworks of ‘the other’ showcase the chronological, spatial and political differences between the two regions. In the vibrant atmosphere of artistic exchange of the 16th century, Portuguese patrons were able to bring home well-crafted mats, raffia bags, wooden and ivory objects of impressive artistry. Ivory in particular carried a lot of prestige with it. They were often used as fits to European rulers. The Portuguese were the pioneers in trading with Sub-Saharan cultures which are renowned for their ivory-carving traditions. The combination of tradition and artistic merit stimulated an export industry with Sierra Leone and Benin being the centers. In what is an exertion of diplomatic and economic power, the Portuguese were able to change the nature and style of artworks to suit their sensibilities. The indigenous artisan’s aesthetics on form, beauty and emphasis were adapted to European forms and motifs. One can see this transformation in the saltcellars, pyxes, hunting horns and cutlery items that were imported. The genius of the artists lay in being able to modify their art while also being able to retain an essential African character in the works. This hybrid genre of art production was famously dubbed by William Fagg as ‘Afro-Portuguese Ivories’.

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